Readings reflection for Feb. 9

At first glance these reading seem to contradict each other. Hurn & Jay are suggesting a very narrow focus for photographic subject matter and really zeroing in on a subject. While Lamott introduces the idea in the Polaroids chapter of going to cover something and letting the story emerge as one is immersed in the environment – going through the actions of reporting/taking notes on what one is witnessing while not fully knowing what the final product will be. This is a central theme of Lamott – in commercial foot ware parlance “Just Do It.”

However, Lamott is advocating “doing” in a very organized fashion. She has confined her subject matter just as Hurn & Jay advocate. Lamott is covering the Special Olympics or in the chapter School Lunches confining herself only to what she remembers about her own school lunches. And from that “shitty first draft” she is then editing and refining what she really wants to write about. Granted she is from a creative writing/fiction background but I think much of what she says still applies. Narrow focus, write (shoot), get it down. Then edit and refine. But narrow your subject matter and idea to the smallest, most direct storyline. Once there, explore it and learn more and it will expand.

To be honest, I enjoyed the Hurn & Jay reading immensely. There were several nuggets that I gleaned from it, things I had heard before, from different people, but that really sunk in while going through that reading.

“You are not a photographer because you are interested in photography.” – David Hurn

This is huge. I got into photography because I liked the act. I liked the mix of science (optics/physics) and art. I of course also romanticized the lifestyle. I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer – travel, experience exotic locales, have great stories to tell the grandkids of my adventures. I went to photojournalism because it was the training ground for the Geographic as far as I could tell.

These illusions have since been wiped away. The life is only glamorous in the public myth. The pay is poor comparative to other professions. But the experience can not be matched!

But they have been replaced by new heroes. People like Jim Richardson (granted he is now a National Geographic photographer, but he made his name covering rural Kansas and other “simple” stories long before he got to the Geographic), Brian Plonka, Jaime Francis, Torsten Kjelstrand (sp? – I can’t recall from memory). People who have “styles” and “visions” (more on this later) but who got where they are by immersing themselves in their subjects.

I have come to realize what Hurn says: “… [P]hotography is only a tool, a vehicle for expressing or transmitting a passion in something else. Not the end result.”

It is not the act of photography I enjoy. It is the communication.

Curiosity is key.

This affects subject selection. If I am not interested in the subject matter, I will not make compelling images and they will not communicate to others – the whole point!

The two go through all kinds of steps to find subject matter but I won’t rehash all that right now. I do like some quotes in particular:

“… just wandering around looking for pictures, hoping that something will pop up and announce itself, does not work.”

“The narrower and more clearly defined the subject matter at the start, the more quickly identified is the ‘direction in which to aim the camera’ … and more pictures are taken. The more the shooting, the greater the enthusiasm and knowledge for the subject. The greater your knowledge, the more you want to do it justice and this increases the scope and depth of the pictures. So the process feeds on itself.” – both David Hurn

The final point that really resonated with me was this one of “style” or “vision” of a photographer. The authors seem to advocate for diminishing one’s own self in their work and being rooted in the subject.

Photographers who use the medium as psychotherapy, about the way “they” feel or interpret the world, often end up with work that appeals to an audience of one (themselves). Rarely will their images resonate with a wider audience.

For me, this defeats the whole purpose – I want to communicate! I don’t want the work to be about me, other than the subject selection – what I think is important. After that it is the subject’s expression, their story. I want to be the medium through visual storytelling.

“If the images are not rooted in ‘the thing itself,’ to use Edward Weston’s term, then the photographer has not learned anything about the real world. He/she can only justify the images by reference to self: ‘This is how I felt.’ Before long, this leads to incredibly convoluted psychoanalysis in a futile effort to justify the most banal, superficial work.” – David Hurn

This striving for “style” or “vision” is futile.

“A unique style, which is what we are talking about, it the by-product of visual exploration, not its goal. Personal vision comes only from not aiming at it … By starting with self, it is missed; ignore it, and it becomes evident.” – David Hurn

Taping into universal, visual communication is easier said than done and I think Bill Jay put it best with:

“The best pictures, for me, are those which go straight into the heart and the blood, and take some time to reach the brain.”


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